In the summer of 1937, Anna and her mother and father went away to a place in the Catskills called Roscoe. It was during the two weeks her father didn’t have to work. Anna was six. There was a big main building with rooms for guests and a dining room where everyone had meals and also a lounge where grownups played cards, checkers and chess, and listened to the radio and talked after dinner. The swimming pool was on the lawn behind the main building; it had a shallow end for children, and all around it were places to sit and lie in the sun. There were also two much smaller buildings down a slope on the right called Annex A and Annex B; they had only guest rooms in them. Anna and her parents were in a room in Annex A because it was a little cheaper than the rooms in the main building, which each had a private bathroom. The two Annexes had only one bathroom to a floor. But each room in an Annex had its own little sink for light washing up, so sharing a bathroom wasn’t so bad, said Anna’s mother.
If you got tired of swimming and sunning at Roscoe, you could go for a stroll to the village in the late afternoon, when it was cooler. In the village was a little store with a wooden floor where Anna’s mother and father would have iced coffee and buy Anna an ice cream cone. But most of the time they stayed beside the pool, where her mother put lotion on herself so as to tan instead of burn, and chatted a bit with other ladies. Her father didn’t use lotion; he sat under an umbrella and had lively conversations with other husbands.
After Anna came out of the children’s end of the pool, she would spread her towel on the grass to hear what was going on. Usually she settled near her mother, because she didn’t understand what the men talked about, like how President Roosevelt had saved us and the bad things that were going on in Germany. But sometimes she found a shady spot near her father’s chair, and that felt better than getting sweaty in the sun where her mother was, even if she couldn’t follow the conversation.
Soon she began to notice that not all the ladies stayed in the sun. When her father was talking, a few of them always moved over to listen. “Your father is such a wonderful raconteur,” said one of these ladies to Anna. “What a lucky little girl you are!”
The guests at Roscoe were all married to each other except for one lady who wasn’t married any more, although once upon a time she had been. Anna was sorry for her at first because she was the only one without a husband, but the other ladies seemed not to like her. They especially disliked the way her bathing suits showed off the tops of her big boobies, which didn’t droop even a little bit. She also wore makeup all the time, even to the pool. And when she walked, her behind wiggled from side to side. Whenever this lady went to sit under a pool umbrella where the men were, the ladies who stayed behind in the sun near Anna’s mother would talk about her — in soft voices, so she wouldn’t hear.
A man sitting by the pool said to Anna’s father that nothing was like it used to be and nowadays you sure needed luck to get by. Anna’s father said, “I’ve got news for you, mister. You always needed luck.” Then he told a story about coming to America with Anna’s mother.
The story took place a long time ago, before Anna was born. Her father and mother were in a big city called Constantinople, in a country called Turkey. They had arrived there on a ship from Russia. Then they needed special papers from the United States in order to get to New York on another ship. But there was a problem. A very powerful third country called England wanted to keep ships from coming in or going out of Constantinople because Constantinople was the only way in or out of Russia by water, and England didn’t like what was happening in Russia. (What was happening was that it wasn’t Russia any more; it had recently become the Soviet Union.) England had many warships, and could do what it wanted, said Anna’s father. So Anna’s father and mother needed to get those papers very fast, before England decided to act.
“Anyway,” said Anna’s father, “the United States had an office in Constantinople where doctors gave health inspections to anyone wanting to come to America. If you were healthy you could come, but if even a little something was wrong — then you couldn’t, until you went to another doctor and were treated for whatever was wrong with you. Which of course took time. And money.”
“Why was that?” asked a lady who was listening intently. “If it was just a little something?” It was the lady with the big boobies, who had no husband.
“Well,” said Anna’s father, who seemed not to mind being interrupted. “Those doctors in Constantinople weren’t American doctors, who can fix you up one, two, three. No siree! They were Turkish doctors. Out for all they could get!”
Anna’s father went on with his story. He and Anna’s mother arrived at the health inspection office early so he could look around. At the front of the nearly empty waiting room he saw a chair and a small writing table that held two saucers filled with colored buttons — red buttons in one, black in the other. Behind the table he also saw several open medical examination rooms. He didn’t know what the buttons were for, but he put a few of each color in his pockets.
Soon the waiting room filled up and an official-looking person arrived, carrying a big leather-bound book. This person settled himself at the table with the buttons, took out two rubber stamps and a stamp pad, and began to call names from his big book for the health inspections: man’s name, woman’s name, man’s name, woman’s name. Anna’s father heard his name and then her mother’s. The person at the table motioned Anna’s mother into one of the examination rooms and her father into the other. “As soon as my examination was over — and it was very quick, let me tell you,” said Anna’s father, ” the doctor gave me a black button and said I could leave. But when Masha came out of her examination room, she had a red button in her hand! What did that mean? Which color meant yes? Which color meant no?” Anna’s father paused for dramatic effect. “How could I know? What I did know was that — red or black — we should stay together. So I took away Masha’s red button and gave her a black one from my pocket. Then we went together to the official with the rubber stamps. He looked at our black buttons and stamped our papers: ‘Approved.’ We made it onto the last boat out of Constantinople.”
“Oh, that was luck!” said the lady with the big boobies. “Except why did they give Masha a red button?”
“Masha still had long hair,” explained Anna’s father. “They told her she had lice. Of course she didn’t. It was a scam. I later heard that they said that to every woman with long hair. The treatment by another doctor would then cost fifty dollars, which the two Turkish doctors would split.”
On the way back to their room in Annex A, Anna told her mother what she had just heard about the red and black buttons. Suppose her father had guessed wrong? Would he have come to the United States alone? Would her mother have had to go back to Russia?
“Don’t think about that story,” said Anna’s mother.
“Why not?” asked Anna. “It was a lucky guess about the buttons, wasn’t it?”
“Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t,” said her mother. But she wouldn’t explain what she meant.
In Annex A
Anna’s father liked to play chess. So did some of the other men at Roscoe. Mostly they played after dinner in the evenings, but one afternoon after lunch (which you could eat in a bathing suit with just a shirt or robe over it), Anna’s father said it was too hot for him by the pool and he was going to look for a chess game in the lounge. Anna’s mother went back to her blanket and towels on the grass where the women she was friendly with usually sat, and Anna jumped back into the pool. But she had drunk a lot of water and lemonade at lunch, and soon she needed to go. What a bother! It would have been so easy to do it in the pool; no one could see if you stood in water up to your waist. That was wrong though, Anna’s mother had said, because other people used the pool too, and some of the other children even swallowed the water by accident. So Anna dutifully pulled herself up out of the shallow end, told her mother she was going to the bathroom, and hurried along the path to Annex A.
The Annex was dark and still. The maids did the vacuuming and made the beds in the morning; Anna thought now she might be the only one in the building. She and her parents had one of the two front guest rooms on the second floor. Up the stairs she went, as fast as she could. The bathroom on that floor was at the other end of the hall, between the two back guest rooms. She squeezed her thighs together so as not to have an accident. And then — oh dear! — the bathroom door wouldn’t open.
“Hello,” she called, rattling the doorknob. “Is someone in there?”
No answer. How quiet it was. She could hear herself breathing. “Please? Will you be out soon?”
Nothing. Not a sound. It wasn’t right. Shouldn’t the person inside answer? At least say, “Just a minute, little girl?”
She tried again. “I really have to go.” Did she hear a sigh from the bathroom?
The door stayed shut. She clutched herself between her legs and looked around for help. Someone. Anyone. That’s when she saw the door of the back guest room on the right was partly open and the lady with big boobies was sitting at a dressing table inside, combing her dark hair in the mirror and keeping her gaze fixed on the reflection in front of her as if Anna didn’t exist. Hadn’t she heard Anna talking to the person in the bathroom?
The lady was wearing nothing but a slip. It was peach-colored and satiny, with creamy open lace at the edges; you could see the outline of the tips of her big boobies through the satin. Even though the maids had made all the beds in the morning, this lady’s bed was messed up, with the sheets and bedspread thrown back every which way and the pillows tossed around. And even though this lady didn’t have a husband any more, there was something black thrown on a corner of her bed over the tangled sheets that looked like a man’s bathing trunks. They were the kind of black knitted bathing trunks Anna’s father wore.
Then Anna knew she shouldn’t wait any longer for the bathroom door to open. She turned, ran downstairs, out of the Annex, up the path towards the main building, and reached the children’s end of the pool just in time. Her mother noticed she was back and sat up on her blanket. “Everything all right?” she called.
The sun was in Anna’s eyes. Waist deep in water, she squinted in the direction of her mother.
“Anna? Are you all right?”
That was a different question. Anna nodded yes, she was all right.